Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review - My Lucky Star

July 10, 2014

My Lucky StarChina, 2013

Stop me if this sounds familiar. An innocent young woman meets a dashingly handsome man who’s secretly a secret agent. There’s a case involving an item that almost everyone is dying to get their hands on. The woman is seen with him and mistaken for his partner. He rescues her and takes her to a remote island in the middle of nowhere, where he teaches her a technique that can enable her to escape someone’s grasp if she ever has to. Later, there are chase scenes, a mix-up with a truth serum, and inexplicable escapes, and all the while the woman wonders aloud if he is her Mr. Right. Can you guess the movie? Given these details, many people, myself included, would have guessed Tom Cruise’s 2010 film Knight and Day, yet all of these cinematic moments can also be found in Dennie Gordon’s 2013 film My Lucky Star, starring Ziyi Zhang and Taiwanese American pop star/director/actor Leehom Wang.

In My Lucky Star, a prequel to 2009’s modestly entertaining, yet ultimately underwhelming Sophie’s Revenge, Zhang plays a young directionless woman named Sophie who works as a travel agent, but dreams of becoming a successful comic book artist. She has a rather active imagination, which makes sense given her goals in life, and a small problem distinguishing fact from fiction, a plot point dropped almost as quickly as it is brought up. In the beginning of the film, we see the story she is writing as it plays in her head, and it doesn’t take a genius to notice that the heroine in her stories bares an uncanny resemblance to herself. In the opening scene, she pictures the damsel in distress being rescued just in the nick of time by a dashing secret agent who just happens to look exactly like an agent who is assigned to retrieve a diamond that can somehow power a weapon lethal enough to destroy an entire European city. I’d love to be able to explain how it does this, but the film is intentionally vague in this department. Go figure.

Eventually the agent and the artist meet up. The agent is suave and remarkably clever, able to keep an eye on a key suspect and help Sophie retrieve belongings after they fall out of her suitcase. Also like Roy Miller in Knight and Day, he initially uses her as a cover for his covert activities, while also furnishing her with a new dress. Sound familiar? At first, Sophie is unaware of the espionage going on around her, and for good reason. After hearing all about the handsome guy she met, her friends back in Beijing have convinced her that what she needs to do is “hit that,” as if sex is the end-all cure for shyness, boredom, and unrealized dreams. All this is played for laughs of course, and it might be less offensive than it is if the jokes actually produced laughter. In addition, the film relies on some of the most disrespectful stereotypes of modern women, namely that they are slightly airheaded, unrealistic in love, and obsessed with wealth and the easy life it affords them. Sure, there are people like this, but they don’t always make the best subjects in movies.  

The film is not a complete disaster. Gordon has moments of inspired creativity, and during the most memorable of these, she adroitly cuts from live action to animation. One result of this is an almost seamless splicing of two worlds – the cute, Walt Disney-like world of cartoons, in which anything is possible, and Sophie’s much more mundane existence, in which nothing seems to be going her way. The technique gives viewers a sense of just how deep Sophie’s romantic and naïve views run, and a later in which she is asked to look at some people on a fishing boat and explain what she sees has a natural sweetness to it. Unfortunately, Gordon also displays a tendency to go overboard with fast cuts and edits which all too often stifle the casts’ attempts to fully convey their characters’ personalities. And we get over-the-top speeches that should have been toned down and cornball dialogue that even the best of actresses would have a hard time delivering convincingly.

Ziyi Zhang is a talented, versatile actress, yet as good as she is, not even she can make Sophie a believable character. As written, Sophie falls somewhere between cute and annoying, and she never appears calm or coherent enough for it to be believable that someone would fall in love with her in a matter of days. She makes unrealistic comments during dangerous situations, acts cowardly on cue, and then inexplicably develops the courage to travel halfway around the world to save the day. Luckily, she travels by map, a la the Muppets. Otherwise, she would never have made it in time.

At one point during the film a thought rushed into my head and I had to write it down. It goes like this, “What’s the point?” What’s the point of going to such great lengths to get quality talent only to give them such pitiful material to work with? At times, Zhang and Wang seem as if they are in different films. She plays most scenes as if she were in a parody of a Bond film, while he acts as if he were trying to actually play Bond. This makes it virtually impossible for the two characters to actually connect in any realistic way, and their eventual pairing comes across as forced rather than earned.

There was a time when a Ziyi Zhang movie meant something, when the mere appearance of her name on a poster or film promotion was indicative of not simply a quality performance but also a film that had the potential to challenge and delight audiences worldwide. My Lucky Star does not completely dispel this impression, but it does demonstrate just how hard it is to continue to produce such an impressive body of work. I’m still a fan, but after The Horsemen, Love for Life, Dangerous Liaisons, and now My Lucky Star, I find my faith beginning to fade. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Asia)

2 stars

*My Lucky Star is in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.

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